“I went into politics because of Churchill”, Paul Keating told me during a chance meeting in the Queen Victoria Building, Sydney, on 7 December 2006.
Even allowing for the former Prime Minister’s talent for the unexpected, this was a surprise. “And it happened in this very building”, he explained. “This used to be the Sydney Municipal Library where I had my first job. They had shelves full of back numbers of the Strand Magazine of London.” Churchill had been a regular contributor in the 1920s and 1930s and Paul Keating said he “devoured” his articles; “Churchill made politics come to life.” I promptly asked him to launch the book on Churchill and Australia I was then writing. He did so in 2008 with his characteristic flair for pot-stirring.
Paul Keating’s successor as Prime Minister of Australia was John Winston Howard. It is noteworthy that this act of homage to Winston Churchill by Mr and Mrs Howard of Canterbury, NSW, took place in July 1939, two months before the outbreak of the Second World War, when Churchill was still in the political wilderness and when, apart from his warnings against Hitler, he was best known in Australia as the architect of the doomed Gallipoli campaign.
It is a measure of Churchill’s unique stature that the two Prime Ministers who took Australia into the 21st century should be connected in these personal ways, not with the Titan of the Finest Hour, but with the pre-war Churchill whose career before 1939 was described by one biographer as “a study in failure”.
Eight Australian Prime Ministers, spanning more than half the 20th century, had substantial relations with Churchill. There were confrontations aplenty. Our second Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, clashed with him over tariff protection versus free trade at the Prime Ministers’ Conference in London in 1907, when Churchill was Under Secretary of State for the Colonies. Andrew Fisher fought him over the role of the infant Royal Australian Navy, when Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty before the First World War. (Churchill wanted to keep the flagship HMAS Australia in the North Atlantic.)
Billy Hughes excoriated Churchill’s attempt as Secretary for War to embroil Australia in an absurd war with Turkey in 1922. Stanley Melbourne Bruce managed to persuade Churchill, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the late 1920s, to bend his free trade principles to give preference to Australian wine. Later Bruce served as Australian High Commissioner in London and had direct access to Churchill throughout the Second World War.
In 1941, three Prime Ministers in rapid succession, Robert Menzies, Arthur Fadden and John Curtin, argued with Churchill over the relief of the 9th Australian Division at Tobruk.
John Curtin, Prime Minister from October 1941 to his death in July 1945, had the most fraught and most crucial relationship of them all.
Ben Chifley tried hard, without success, to get Churchill to give a less one-sided account of the Curtin Labor Government in his Second World War memoirs. Churchill accepted in principle Chifley’s invitation to visit Australia. He never came.
The Australian Prime Minister with the longest and closest relationship with Churchill was Sir Robert Menzies. It began with a visit to Chartwell, Churchill’s beloved country home, in 1935 and ended thirty years later, when Menzies delivered his eulogy on behalf of the Commonwealth of Nations at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, as a key part of Churchill’s funeral services. Or rather, we might say that their relationship began a new phase, because within days of Churchill’s death on 24 January 1965, Sir Robert launched the national appeal leading to the foundation of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust – Churchill’s living monument in Australia.
There is a paradox about Australian attitudes towards Winston Churchill of which Sir Robert Menzies himself was the embodiment. For it must be recalled that, with all his eloquent admiration of Churchill, Menzies had shared the doubts about Churchill’s attitude towards Australia, and some of his actions, held by many of his fellow Australians at the time and to this day.
Paradoxically, it is this Australian ambivalence about Churchill which makes the relationship so rich, complex and, in the end, so strong. No Australian who studies the record can be starry-eyed about everything Churchillian. We can see him warts and all. His reputation is all the more solid in Australia precisely because the questions raised by his dealings with us are so important for an understanding of our own history.
Menzies was twenty years younger than Churchill. Their first meeting in 1935, when Menzies was Australian Attorney-General in the Lyons Government, took place at a low point in Churchill’s career. He had put himself in the political wilderness by his strident opposition to any move towards self-government, much less independence, for India. He had not yet found his warning and prophetic voice against Hitler. After their Chartwell meeting, Menzies confided to his diary: “All in all, the idol has feet of clay”.
Six years later, when they were both war Prime Ministers, Menzies was able to observe Churchill’s leadership close-up, during his long stay in Britain from February to May 1941. He wrote in his diary on 14 March:
The Cabinet is deplorable – dumb men most of whom disagree with Winston but none of whom dare say so. This state of affairs is dangerous. The Chiefs of Staff are without exception Yes men. Winston is a dictator; he cannot be overruled. The people have set him up as something little less than God and his power is therefore terrific.
But in the stream of private criticism, the consistent theme was always about courage – in this case, that nobody had the courage to stand up to Churchill. Menzies strongly advocated the creation of an Imperial War Cabinet, with permanent Dominion representation. Churchill brushed such ideas aside, grumbling: “They only want me to make the speeches”.
After the War, the uneven partnership of 1941 matured into a genuine friendship. They were both Leaders of the Opposition in their respective Parliaments. Menzies had been deserted by his own party in August 1941, and Churchill had been defeated at the British elections in July 1945, two months after victory in Europe and two months before victory over Japan. Menzies’ prospects of becoming Prime Minister again seemed rather better than Churchill’s, who, in his seventies, was immersed in writing his six-volume history of the Second World War. Resilient as ever, he occasionally showed bitterness over his electoral defeat, but in a very Churchillian way. About the offer by King George VI to make him a Knight of the Garter, he said: “How can I accept the Order of the Garter when the people have just given me the Order of the Boot?”
At Chartwell once again in 1948, Churchill and Menzies pondered the fickleness of fame. “You realize”, Menzies said, “that five years after your death, clever young men from Oxford or Cambridge or some other ‘seat of learning’ will be writing books explaining that you were never right about anything”. Menzies added: “But not many years later the clever young men will have been forgotten, and your name will be seen clearly at the pinnacle”. Writing in his memoirs, Afternoon Light, two years after Churchill’s death, he thought that the process of denigration had already begun.
Sir Robert was wrong about the “clever young men” but right enough about the pinnacle. Churchill’s critics have not in general come from academia. In the event, the most damaging account came from the unlikeliest source, none other than the wartime Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke. Published in a bowdlerised form seven years before Churchill’s death, his diaries contained bitter criticisms of Churchill’s interference in strategic planning, especially after 1941.
“The wonderful thing”, Brooke wrote in his diary on 10 September 1944, “is that three-quarters of the world imagine that Winston Churchill is one of the Strategists of History, a second Marlborough, and the other quarter have no conception what a public menace he is and has been throughout the war”. Then Brooke added: “Without him, England was lost for a certainty; with him, England has been on the verge of disaster time and again”.
Here again we can see the Churchillian paradox. No statesman has been subject to closer scrutiny during and after his lifetime – not least because he himself provided such vast and rich material for that scrutiny. No politician evoked more hostility from colleagues and opponents; he changed his party allegiance three times, ensuring enemies from all sides. (He is supposed to have said: “To rat on your party is easy; to re-rat takes talent”.) He seemed dead in the water politically in 1915, 1922, 1930-37 and in 1945. He never allowed himself to be written off. His worst critics had to admit his resilience and courage; and even as they exposed his flaws they admitted the greatness of his achievement. As David Reynolds, author of the most searching analysis of Churchill at war, In Command of History (2004) writes: “Revealing the man behind the myth enhances his stature”.
Churchill often expressed his confidence in the favourable verdict of history – “especially as I intend to write the history myself”. But he had a profound understanding of the way history works. In his tribute to Neville Chamberlain on his death at the end of 1940, Churchill said in the House of Commons:
It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase, men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values.
Winston Churchill’s reputation, like his career, had more ups and downs than most great figures in history. But more than any, except perhaps Abraham Lincoln, the significance of his achievement is renewed with each change in historical perspective, and with each new setting of the human condition. And this is mainly because he was so gloriously right on the One Big Thing when it counted most, at a supreme crisis for civilization.
By 1965, the crucial importance of Churchill’s “Saving England” had long been recognised. The brilliant philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, had enrolled him as a standard-bearer in the cause of Western liberal humanism when he described Churchill during the War as “the saviour of his country, the largest human being of his time”. Sir Robert Menzies, however, sought to express a much wider view of Churchill’s significance. He saw that it went far beyond “Saving England”. He emphasised the continuing relevance of Churchill’s achievement across national boundaries and across the generations. In his speech launching the Churchill Memorial Appeal in Australia on 1 February 1965, he said:
I began by speaking of our debt to Winston Churchill. The interesting thing about that debt is that although I owe it in my generation, my children owe it also, and my grandchildren will owe it because his service to freedom was of such a kind that it has helped to determine the position of freedom for generations to come.
This cross-generational vision has inspired and shaped the work of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust ever since.
Asking the “what ifs” of history – the historians call them counter-factuals – can be fruitful or frustrating. Some regard it as an exercise in futility. The Second World War abounds in “what ifs”. “What if Britain and France had gone to war over Czechoslovakia in September 1938, instead of postponing war a year until Hitler’s invasion of Poland?” “What if Hitler’s armies had reached Moscow in November 1941, as they so very nearly did?” “What if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941; would the United States ever have come into the War?”; or “would the United States have come into the war against Germany if Hitler himself had not declared war on the United States in support of his Japanese ally immediately after Pearl Harbor?” But the most fundamental of the Second World War “what ifs” is: “What if Britain had done a deal with Hitler in 1940?” Unlike most counter-factuals, the answer is clear and unequivocal: Hitler would have won the War.
If we know and remember only Churchill’s great wartime speeches and broadcasts, with their grand theme of “We shall never surrender”, we might think it inconceivable that there could ever have been a deal with Hitler in 1940.
In his war memoirs, Churchill himself took pains to discount the possibility, not only on his own behalf, but on behalf of the entire British Cabinet, government and people, writing : “Future generations may deem it noteworthy that the supreme question of whether we should fight on alone never found a place upon the War Cabinet agenda”.
Technically true; but at critical War Council meetings on 26, 27 and 28 May 1940, as the French Army was collapsing under the weight of the Blitzkrieg and the British Army seemed about to be trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, the question of negotiations was very real and thoroughly canvassed by the War Council members (Neville Chamberlain, whom Churchill had just replaced as Prime Minister; Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary; and Clem Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, the Labour Party representatives). And it was Churchill himself who is recorded as saying: “If we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and Gibraltar and some African colonies, I would jump at it”.
But that was not the sort of deal Hitler was offering. What he wanted was, typically for Hitler, breathtaking in its audacity: in exchange for a “free hand” in the East (i.e. against his current ally, Stalin’s Soviet Union) he would “guarantee” the British Empire (i.e. India). He might well have thought that this was an offer that Churchill would indeed have “jumped at”.
From the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Churchill had been foremost among European politicians in calling for armed intervention “to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle”. In the 1930s, he had badly undermined his political effectiveness by his obduracy against self-government for India in any form. That he spurned such an offer out-of-hand is a measure of his moral clarity in 1940, and of his ability to rise above his own deepest prejudices.
Lord Halifax had very nearly become Prime Minister instead of Churchill when the House of Commons had turned against Chamberlain in May 1940. Halifax was no coward; he saw himself as the voice of commonsense. In the appalling circumstances at the end of May, he insisted that the War Council discuss a French proposal to ask Mussolini to sound out Hitler on terms for a negotiated truce. Churchill alone was adamant against it. He immediately saw the danger. It would put Britain on the slippery slope. As soon as it became known that Britain was prepared to talk, however tentatively, the momentum of his “Victory at all costs” speeches would dissipate; British morale would plummet. Talking to Hitler would be seen as the prelude to a deal, and any deal would be tantamount to surrender, however it was dressed up. Sensing that his colleagues were wavering in the face of Halifax’s pragmatic commonsense, Churchill appealed to the members of the whole Cabinet. He told them: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground”.
Halifax recorded in his diary: “Winston talked the most frightful rot”. But Churchill prevailed: Britain would fight on, whatever happened in France. This was the crucial decision of Churchill’s war, and it was never altered, even when it would have been reasonable and honourable enough to do so: not after the Fall of France; not when President Roosevelt made it plain that the United States would not come into the war unless attacked; not after the Battle of Britain effectively ended any chance that Hitler would invade Britain.
Nor should it be forgotten that Hitler began planning the invasion of the Soviet Union as early as July 1940, not despite the fact that Britain remain unconquered but precisely because of it. Whereas Churchill’s real hope for eventual victory lay with the United States, Hitler believed that Churchill’s only hope was Russia. He had convinced himself that by turning on his treaty ally (since August 1939, with the infamous pact with Stalin by which this monstrous pair carved up Poland between them) he would, as he put it, “knock away Britain’s last prop”. It was this belief that enabled Hitler to quash any concern among the German High Command about a war on two fronts by invading Russia with Britain undefeated. Thus, Churchill’s stand was the crucial factor in Hitler’s fatal miscalculation about the Soviet Union – the ultimate reason why he lost the war.
So we can see with absolute clarity the consequences of a deal with Hitler in 1940. Hitler’s mastery over Europe would have been complete. He would then have been able to marshal all his resources towards his ultimate objective, the destruction of the Soviet Union and the enslavement of Europe as far as the Urals. Free of any moral or military challenge from Britain and the Dominions, Hitler would have been able to portray his invasion of Russia as the crusade against communism – the “international Jewish Bolshevik conspiracy” as he usually termed it – which he had always envisaged. Even as things were, the invasion was a close run thing. The alternatives to a total Soviet defeat would have been a second deal between Hitler and Stalin or a stalemate. Either would have meant the triumph of totalitarianism, uninhibited and unchallengeable, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Churchill staked everything on Britain’s ability to hold on until the United States came into the war. “I see my way clear. I will drag America in”, he told his son Randolph in July 1940. Whatever Roosevelt’s own hopes and wishes may have been, none of the disasters which befell Europe between September 1939 and December 1941 was enough to bring America in, against Nazi Germany. If Churchill had taken Britain out of the war, or if Britain had been knocked out of the war, the United States would never, and could never, have come in. It is as simple as that.
With Britain (and Australia) out of the war, there could have been no Grand Alliance with the United States and the Soviet Union; no “arsenal of democracy” as Roosevelt defined America’s role in 1940; no Lend Lease for Britain and Russia; no North African campaign, no El Alamein; no Allied invasion of Italy; no build up of massive Allied forces in Britain, and therefore no D-Day, no liberation of France and Western Europe. We may further speculate that any deal with Hitler to guarantee the continued existence of the British Empire would have morphed into an arrangement whereby Imperial Japan would be allocated overlordship of the British, French and Dutch empires in South-East Asia. Including Australia.
In his speech on the Fall of France on 18 June 1940, Churchill said:
Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.
This is splendid rhetoric. It happens also to be cold, sober fact.
What shines through down the decades is the consistency of Churchill’s piercing insights into the true nature of the Nazi regime, long before its criminality, pervasive and systematic, reached its climax with the Holocaust. Hitler used his conquests both to implement and disguise his policy of the physical extermination of the Jewish people of Europe. Pre-war violence, murder, persecution and forced emigration metastasised into mass deportation and “scientific” annihilation.
In his first speech to the House of Commons as Prime Minister in May 1940 he pledged “to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime”.
This was more than speechmaking; it was something he felt with every instinct and fibre of his being. In a little known episode three months before the war, when he was still on the backbenches, in a passionate exchange with Walter Lippmann, probably the most influential American journalist of his time, Churchill gave in eighty words, off-the-cuff, a précis of everything that motivated him for the next six years.
At a dinner on 13 June 1939, Lippmann had told him that the US Ambassador, Joseph Kennedy (father of President John F. Kennedy) was going around London saying that “when war came Britain, facing defeat, would negotiate with Hitler”. When he heard the word “defeat”, Churchill exploded:
No. The Ambassador should not have spoken so, Mr Lippmann. He should not have said that dreadful word. Yet supposing (as I do not for one moment suppose) that Mr Kennedy were correct in his tragic utterance, then I for one would willingly lay down my life in combat, rather than, in fear of defeat, surrender to the menaces of these most sinister men. It will then be for you, the Americans, to preserve and maintain the great heritage of the English-speaking peoples (Martin Gilbert (ed), Churchill – The Power of Words (2012), p.215)
Melodramatic, perhaps, for a London dinner party. But authentic Churchill. At this time, it seemed unlikely that he would ever be in office again, although the idea that he could become a soldier again must have struck his audience as even more unlikely. But what stirred such passions in a 64-year-old has-been? Partly, as he had said at the time of the Munich sell-out of Czechoslovakia in September 1938: “What I find unendurable is the sense of our country falling under the power, into the orbit and influence, of Nazi Germany”. But more, he had grasped, almost instinctively, the unique capacity for destruction of these “sinister men” and their regime – and, I emphasise – he saw it all long before the Holocaust.
I happen to hold the almost heretical belief that Munich can be justified on the ground that unity of purpose between Britain, France and the Dominions was unachievable in the circumstances of 1938. Australia would have joined Britain half-heartedly; Canada might not have joined in at all. But Churchill saw clearly how easily the rot could set in:
In a very few years, perhaps in a very few months, we shall be confronted with demands with which we shall no doubt be invited to comply. I foresee and foretell that the policy of submission will carry with it restrictions upon the freedom of speech and debate in Parliament, on public platforms and discussions in the press, for it will be said – indeed I hear it said sometimes now– that we cannot allow the Nazi system of dictatorship to be criticised by ordinary, common English politicians. Then, with a press under control, in part direct but more potently indirect, with every organ of public opinion doped and chloroformed into acquiescence, we shall be conducted along further stages of our journey.
Here is the voice of the greatest parliamentarian of his time. His warning about the stifling of dissent is timeless.
If the world was saved from the abyss, it hardly reached Churchill’s “broad sunlit uplands” with the defeat of Germany in 1945. Instead, it entered, almost immediately, the four decades of the Cold War. This is why Churchill called the sixth and last volume of his war memoirs Triumph and Tragedy. And herein lies the last and perhaps greatest of the paradoxes surrounding Churchill, his achievements and his reputation. The very conditions of the victory over Nazism which he had made possible made the Cold War all but inevitable. The price of victory was the exhaustion of the British Empire; but the consequence of victory was the emergence of two super-powers, the USA and the USSR, representing two incompatible ideologies.
What will make the Cold War so difficult for later generations to grasp is that it is essentially the story of something that never happened: the Cold War did not become the Third World War, which would inevitably have been a nuclear war, as Churchill said in March 1950, “with horrors of a kind and on a scale never dreamed of before by human beings”. For a generation, Cold War fears overshadowed Churchill’s achievement in 1940-41.
In some Western circles, the Second World War itself came to be seen as a distraction from the main game – the contest between democracy and communism. To them, as described by the historian Tony Judt in his masterpiece Post War (2005):
The years 1941-45 were just an interlude in an international struggle whose shape was obscured but not fundamentally altered by the threat posed to both sides by the rise of Fascism and Nazism at the heart of the continent. (p.104)
Roosevelt’s successor as President, Harry Truman, embodied the new attitude. As a Senator from Missouri, Truman had said after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941: “If the Germans look like winning, we should aid Russia; if the Russians look like winning, we should aid Germany.” By contrast, Churchill, who had been almost alone among his experts in his confidence that Stalin would withstand Hitler’s onslaught, said:
I have only one single purpose – the destruction of Hitler – and my life is much simplified thereby. If Hitler invaded Hell I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.
Yet in his war memoirs, Churchill himself downplayed the epic of the Russian front and its indispensable part in the Allied victory. The maverick US General George Patton was not alone in questioning publicly “whether we had fought the wrong war against the wrong enemy”.
Churchill’s role in defining and shaping the Cold War awaits its definitive historian. He began with his famous “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946 and ended with an eloquent plea for “the peace that is within our hearts” in his last major speech in the House of Commons in March 1955, just before he reluctantly resigned his second Prime Ministership, aged 80. Stalin blasted the Fulton speech as “war-mongering like Hitler’. But Churchill was never a Cold Warrior. He set himself against the growing sense of inevitability about another world war. He was the first Western leader to acknowledge that Russia’s security interests and anxieties were legitimate.
“Russia has a right to feel assured”, he said in a speech in the House of Commons soon after Stalin’s death in 1953, “that as far as human arrangements can run, the terrible events of the Hitler invasion will never be repeated”. He was the first to propose a security guarantee for the Soviet Union against any renewed German threat. He warned against impeding “any spontaneous and healthy evolution which may be taking place inside Russia”.
Above all, he constantly urged another Summit Meeting which he hoped would lead to a general European settlement. Unsurprisingly, he was accused, on both sides of the Atlantic, of appeasement like Neville Chamberlain. To be compared with both Hitler and Chamberlain strongly suggests that he must have been doing something right. And, indeed, his proposals were to become major steps in the long, hard road towards the eventual break-up of the Soviet Empire.
Half a century after the Finest Hour, a quarter of a century after Churchill’s death, the Soviet Union disintegrated, not as a result of war but under the weight of its own contradictions. Only then did it become clear that the defeat of Hitler had been the pivotal achievement of the 20th century in the fearful continuum from the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 to the collapse of Soviet power in 1989-91. The liberation of Eastern Europe had taken place without an Armageddon.
The collapse of European communism also had a liberating effect on historians. The Marxist claim to hold the key to history, past, present and future, was discredited. The decisive role of great human beings was again recognised in the narrative of human history. The end of the Cold War nightmare brought the Nazi period into sharper focus. Masses of hidden documents became available. The true nature of Hitlerism was finally exposed in all its criminality and corruption of the human spirit. The verdict of history was in. And it was decidedly in Churchill’s favour.
During the ordeal of 1940-41, Churchill was eager to acknowledge Australia’s contribution, and even more eager to have Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen in the fight against Nazi Germany. Depending on his audience, he stressed the “standing alone” aspect of Britain’s struggle; sometimes he included the “British Empire”; and sometimes he brought in the Dominions and the Commonwealth. In the Finest Hour speech of 18 June 1940, he included all three. Britain must prepare for the worst, he said, concluding: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: This was their finest hour”.
In April 1941 he travelled with Prime Minister Menzies to Bristol University, of which he was Chancellor, where Menzies received an honorary doctorate. Welcoming the Australian Prime Minister who, Churchill said, had “brought with him strong assurances that Australia will, with us, go through this long, fierce, dire struggle to the victorious end”, Churchill continued:
It is, indeed, a marvellous fact that Australia and New Zealand, who are separated from us and from Europe, with all its passions and quarrels, by the great ocean spaces, should send their manhood and scatter their wealth upon this world cause. No law, no constitution, no bond or treaty pledges them to send a shilling or send a man.
Churchill probably knew that he was echoing the pledge of the Labor Prime Minister of Australia, Andrew Fisher, in 1914 to fight alongside Britain “to the last man and the last shilling”. He would certainly have known the terms of Menzies’ announcement on 3 September 1939: “In consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war”. Australia had already sent three divisions to fight Germany for a second time, despite our growing anxiety about the threat from Japan. Churchill had continued to discount the threat. He had pressured Menzies to agree to the dispatch of an Australian Division in a desperate effort to save Greece. At Bristol Churchill said: “There, to the classic scenes of the ancient lands of Greece, they will bring the valour of the sons of the Southern Cross”.
Churchill’s relationship with Australia was seldom easy. At the time of the above-mentioned exchange with Walter Lippmann in 1939, Churchill was battling to meet his publisher’s deadline to complete his History of the English Speaking Peoples. In the event he had to put it aside for more pressing engagements, and it was not published until well after the War. Despite his long association with English-speaking Australia, its history failed to excite him. But he tried his best. His research assistant, the young historian Alan Bullock, had provided a 10,000 word draft for the Australian chapter. According to Jonathan Rose, in his rich and fascinating book The Literary Churchill (2014):
Churchill complained that it conveyed ‘inevitably a somewhat drab picture. There are so many convicts and penal settlements.’ He asked for more on ‘the unique character of her animals, the kangaroo, the platypus, etc.’, and of course the Australian love of sport; horseracing, the Melbourne Cup; Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poems about all these.
Churchill continued in his memo to Alan Bullock, as Jonathan Rose writes (p.150):
Something about the very fine type of manhood developing there, with virile and martial qualities proved in the Great War. An equal land; a happy land; climate lovely apart from droughts, which water storage should eventually cure.
Beyond the clichés and stereotypes, there was a crucial gap in Churchill’s understanding of Australia which coloured his conduct for fifty years. Menzies himself put his finger on the problem. Observing Churchill at close quarters in London in 1941, he cabled his Cabinet colleagues back in Canberra:
Churchill has no conception of the British Dominions as separate entities.
From the 1900s, when he could not understand why Australia wanted a Fleet of its own, to the 1950s when he deplored the ANZUS Treaty because it excluded Britain, this conceptual failure – essentially a failure of one of his greatest qualities, his imagination – disturbed and sometimes distorted his relations with Australia. Yet Churchill bequeathed us two of Australia’s foundational legends: Gallipoli in 1915 and the “turning to America” in 1942.
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“So, through a Churchill’s excess of imagination, a layman’s ignorance of artillery and the fatal power of a young enthusiasm to overwhelm older and slower brains”, wrote Charles Bean, the official Australian war historian in his The Story of Anzac, “the tragedy of Gallipoli was born”.
Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, had conceived his Dardanelles operation as a means of shortening the war, by relieving the Western Front, already stalemated along 400 miles in France and Belgium by December 1914. “Are there not other alternatives than sending new armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?”.
Churchill had written to Prime Minister Asquith on 29 December 1914. “Cannot the power of the Navy be brought more directly to bear upon the enemy?” The plan he developed was to take Constantinople (Istanbul) by sea assault, knocking Germany’s eastern ally, the Ottoman Empire, out of the war. The Anzacs, training in Egypt, were originally assigned a minor role in the occupation of the Ottoman capital. The Navy’s failure to get through the Dardanelles Straits in March – another close-run thing – was followed by the Peninsula landings of British, French and Australian/New Zealand forces on 25 April 1915. In May Churchill was sacked as First Lord of the Admiralty. The failure of the Gallipoli campaign almost wrecked Churchill’s career. But of course he bounced back. The Anzac story – or his version of it – became an important element in his self-rehabilitation.
Out of office, and after a stint with his regiment in the trenches of Flanders, Churchill protested to his former Cabinet colleagues against the proposed evacuation:
Australia and New Zealand sent the first armies they have ever raised to fight against Germany in Europe. Without consultation with their Governments or Parliaments, these forces were sent by Lord Kitchener to the Gallipoli Peninsula ….. By feats of army and military conduct of the highest order, they have seized and held, at a cost of 30,000 men and cruel hardships, a position close to the vitals of their enemy, from which, if properly sustained, it is probable that no force can be brought to bear to move them.
Anzac is the greatest word in the history of Australasia. Is it for ever to carry for the future generations of Australians and New Zealanders memories of forlorn heroism and of sacrifices made in vain?
Thus, even before the Gallipoli campaign ended in defeat and withdrawal, Churchill wrote the text, combining both the Imperial and Australian national themes, for countless Anzac Day addresses ever since.
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When the United States at last came into the Second World War – not as a result of Churchill’s efforts but of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 – another Churchillian paradox troubled his relations with Australia, or at least with its government, now a Labor Government led by John Curtin.
Grateful as he was for America’s armed intervention – the whole purpose behind his “Keep fighting” strategy in 1940-41 – Churchill resisted and resented anything that might detract from his fundamental doctrine of “Beating Hitler First”. He also resented anything that might interfere with his monopoly of personal relations with President Roosevelt. Herein largely lies the explanation of Churchill’s conduct towards the Australian Government in 1942.
Some recent historians have followed Churchill in downplaying Australia’s fears of a Japanese invasion. This is all hindsight. No Australian Government in 1942 could responsibly have acted on any other assumption. In any case, the actual strategic objective of the Japanese Imperial High Command was as deadly to Australia’s security as any land invasion – specifically, to isolate Australia by cutting its lines of communication across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and preventing its use as the main base against Japan. Neither at the time nor in his war memoirs did Churchill acknowledge the seriousness of this threat, foiled by the American naval victories at the Battle of the Coral Sea and Midway.
The sheer commonsense of John Curtin’s famous New Year’s Message to the People of Australia is now so obvious that it is hard to realize what the fuss was all about. It needs to be remembered that it was written primarily for Australian consumption, at the request of the Melbourne Herald, outlining to the Australian people what they might expect in the coming perilous year. It was not directed at Roosevelt – or Churchill for that matter. The paragraph that so enraged Churchill, and is now elevated almost to the level of an Australian declaration of independence, stated:
The Australian Government, therefore, regards the Pacific struggle as primarily one in which the United States and Australia must have the fullest say in the direction of the Democracies’ fighting plan. Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.
We know the problems that the United Kingdom faces. We know the constant threat of invasion. We know the dangers of dispersal of strength, but we know, too, that Australia can go and Britain can still hold on.
We are, therefore, determined that Australia shall not go, and we shall exert all our energies towards the shaping of a plan, with the United States as its keystone, which will give to our country some confidence of being able to hold out until the tide of battle swings against the enemy.
Perhaps the most questionable statement in these paragraphs is the reference to Britain’s “constant threat of invasion”. In fact, by January 1942, there was not the remotest chance of a German invasion of Britain – certainly far less probable than a Japanese attack upon Australia. But I imagine Churchill saw it as a cheap shot at his own war-time rhetoric. He reacted with outrage. It was at this stage he delivered himself of the opinion (to his personal physician, Sir Charles Moran) that “the Australians came of bad stock”. It made matters worse that he was in the United States, finalizing arrangements with Roosevelt to resist Japan while sticking to the “Beat Hitler first” strategy. We do not know what he said to Roosevelt about Curtin’s statement; whatever it was led to the President’s curious comment that “it smacked of disloyalty”. To his colleagues in London, Churchill cabled: “I hope there will be no pandering to this”. In his memoirs, he called it “the outpourings of [Curtin’s] anxieties”. Six weeks later, Singapore fell (15 February 1942) with the surrender of 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops, the entire 8th Division of the 2nd AIF – described by Churchill in his war memoirs as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”.
Churchill’s overheated reaction to Curtin’s Message did more than anything else to establish its iconic place in Australian history and foreign policy. He made it seem more radical than it was or than Curtin intended. Something that might have passed as no more than an incident in Australian diplomacy began to look like a prophecy, and came to be held as the foundation stone of the American Alliance. Churchill’s resentment at anything that smacked of Australian independence made it exactly that. In all Churchill’s career, there is no more striking example of the Churchillian paradox and of his unequalled ability to shape history, whether he was right or wrong, whether he won or lost his countless battles.
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A final paradox. I remember as an 11-year-old being shocked by the news that Churchill had been defeated in the British elections of July 1945. In my somewhat Tory household in Brisbane, Queensland, there was much talk about the ingratitude of the British people. It was nothing of the sort. Rather it was the ultimate vindication of Churchill’s war, the proof that it had indeed been fought for democracy. The most powerful Englishman in history had been brought down from the pinnacle at the hour of triumph. More about parties and policies than personalities, the election result was the rational decision of a free people claiming the right to the better future which Churchill had promised in 1940 and which they had won together. Of course, when his wife Clementine suggested his defeat might be a blessing in disguise, he grunted: ‘The blessing seems to be very heavily disguised at the moment”. But when we reflect on the blood that has been shed, the violence and corruption, in struggles for political power, not least in the 21st century, we can see what a majestic moment in the history of parliamentary democracy it really was when the people of Britain voted out a leader they loved and honoured. To me, it goes to the heart of the meaning of the words I wrote in 2008 in my book on Churchill and Australia:
For my generation, nothing can remotely outweigh the intense conviction that, except for Winston Churchill, the doctrines and practices of Hitler’s Germany would have prevailed in Europe and far beyond, protracted in Churchill’s words by ‘the lights of perverted science’ and that the British Empire, including Australia, would have been enrolled as an accomplice in Hitler’s crimes.
That this conviction is shared by new generations is attested by the enduring success of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust in Australia.